Friday, January 14, 2011

What novelist, what Fielding, what Scott, can impart an interest to the last chapter of his fictitious history?

Trollope can be a slack writer.  Repetitive.  What’s the fancy word for wordy – prolix.  I always laugh when I see someone describe a piece of writing as “wordy.”  Come on, that’s funny, right?  ‘Cause it’s made of words?  Hey, speaking of wordy.

The repetition is the literary sin that I take most seriously.  Such as.  The exotic Signora Neroni is an inspired creation of Trollope’s, essential for the plot of Barchester Towers, such as it is.  Idle and useless, she spends her time toying with men:

Such matters were her playthings, her billiard table, her hounds and hunters, her waltzes and polkas, her picnics and summer-day excursions.  She had little else to amuse her, and therefore played at love-making in all its forms.  (Ch. 38)

Nothing too serious, since this is a family novel.  We are, at this point, three-quarters of the way through the novel, and Trollope has told us these defining facts about the character at least four times.  The reader who does not have this association pretty well fixed is in trouble.  By chapter 38, it’s filler.

Nice filler, though, isn’t it?  The sentence with the list, I mean, truly elegant variation, and with just a bit of a sting in the first few items, which belong exclusively to men, and maybe another sting in the innocent picnics at the end.  Even the filler is clever and well-made.  But then what should I make of this:

But we must go back a little, and it shall be but a little, for a difficulty begins to make itself manifest in the necessity of disposing of all our friends in the small remainder of this one volume.  Oh, that Mr. Longman would allow me a fourth!  It should transcend the other three as the seventh heaven transcends all the lower stages of celestial bliss.  (Ch. 43)

Look, if that fourth volume was going to be so good, maybe you should have gotten out the shears a little earlier, yes?  But no, it’s the publisher’s fault for limiting Trollope to a three volume novel.

Not so much later, though, in Chapter 51, something has changed.  Trollope has too much room!

These leave-takings in novels are as disagreeable as they are in real life; not so sad, indeed, for they want the reality of sadness; but quite as perplexing, and generally less satisfactory.  What novelist, what Fielding, what Scott, what George Sand, or Sue, or Dumas, can impart an interest to the last chapter of is fictitious history?...  And who can apportion out and dovetail his incidents, dialogues, characters, and descriptive morsels so as to fit them all exactly into 439 pages, without either compressing them unnaturally, or extending them artificially at the end of his labour?  Do I not myself know that I am at this moment in want of a dozen pages, and that I am sick with cudgelling my brains to find them?

Those ellipses cover some real goodies.  Who is at fault now?  I am afraid I, the reader, am at fault: “When we become dull, we offend your intellect; and we must become dull or we should offend your taste.”  Poor, poor novelist!  His readers are so unforgiving.  Why won’t they just let those last dozen pages go?

Trollope invokes Fielding purposefully (Scott, too – see the end of Old Mortality).  Chapter 1 of Book XVIII of Tom Jones (1749) is “A Farewel [sic] to the Reader.”  Fielding apologizes for any offence and warns that in the remaining twelve chapters – his farewell is a bit early! – he will have to abandon “those ludicrous Observations which I have elsewhere made,” and “any Pleasantry for thy Entertainment,” because he “shall be obliged to cram into this Book” all of the tedious plotty stuff that still has to be covered.

Fielding is lying, since the last book of Tom Jones has the same character as the previous seventeen.  Trollope is lying, too, since the last dozen pages seem to be just the correct length for this remaining business.  Perhaps I should replace "lying" with "joking."  This is how novelists have their fun.  Trollope lets me watch him laugh at me.  Laughter is infectious, so I laugh, too.


  1. About repetitions: I noticed quite a few in The Way We Live Now (the only Trollope I’ve read) and put it down to what he felt necessary in the serialization. If and when I get to later novels that weren’t serialized, I’ll have to note if they still appear.

    Regarding his complaint on compressing or extending, I was going to pun about his concern over novel ligation (since he was worried about tying his Trollopian tubes), but I’ll refrain. Oops, too late.

  2. I found The Eustace Diamonds rather horribly repetitious in its explications of the protagonist's character flaws. It became quite tiresome. I think this one was also serialized, but still.

    Non-sequiter: Does your moniker Amateur Reader come from the dedication at the front of Salinger's Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction?

  3. Repetition in a serial novel is not artistically forgivable, but it is at least explicable. In the three volume novel, I don't know. Trollope does a number of things to make the reader's life easier. Some work, some don't.

    But - a post I didn't write is about a brilliant bit of repetition. The beginning of Chapter 48 repeats the information from the end of Chapter 47 - c'mon, pal, I just read that! But Trollope is actually deliberately creating irritating delays to postpone the Proposal Scene. The repetition is just one of his tricks.

    So who knows.

    Now, that Salinger quote is an irritant. It clogs up my Google Alerts emails. I want to know if people are talking about me, not about some antique quotation.

    I did not know the quote. I wanted the Amateur tag to distinguish myself from Professionals - profs, authors, editors, bookstore owners, etc. People who make money (however little) from reading.

  4. The Salinger quotation is, in principle, admirable, and fits the spirit of Wuthering Expectations well. It just interferes with my narcissism.

  5. I read a Trollope book once, many many years ago - The Warden - and I shall never read one again. But is it the case, from your reading, that these kind of meta-fictional moments such as the ones you quote are common in his work?

  6. Common, yes. But I don't see how there can always be as much as in Barchester Towers, which has as much of it as Tom Jones, just not as formally organized.

    I mean, he must run out, right? But one would think the same would be true of characters, plots, and proposal scenes as well.

    From the second paragraph of a Trollope I have not read:

    "The name [Orley Farm] might lead to the idea that new precepts were to be given, in the pleasant guise of a novel, as to cream-cheeses, pigs with small bones, wheat sown in drills, or artificial manure. No such aspirations are mine."

  7. Hi Amateur:

    I suppose you don’t like Gertrude Stein then?

    I would think that repetition in the interest of poetic tautologies would be acceptable.

    A rose is a rose is a rose.

    The above line is not only true; it will never have an identity problem.

    of Anthony Trollope
    I can only take a dollop
    I’d rather read Joanna than him
    I very much liked
    The Brass Dolphin.


  8. I haven't read enough Stein to have an opinion. But, sure, repetition is just a tool or technique that can be used in more or less artistically interesting ways.

    Thanks for he amusing poem.

  9. Here's my review of his view of his own life (if that makes sense...):

  10. Thanks, I had seen that, but some other commenters may not have had the foresight to put your blog in their RSS reader.

    I left a postmodern, but sincere, response.

    Summary: the third person omniscient narrator of Trollope's novels is not the actual Trollope, but a persona. How do we know that the Autobiography is not also in the voice of that persona?

  11. I am just finishing "The Prime Minister", which is the 32nd novel by Trollope I have read. I don't care if he is repetitious, wordy or even prolix, he always entertains me. I really (obviously) love his novels.

  12. Criticism is an act of love. Failure to criticize is an act of contempt.

  13. I'm never bored by Trollope. He is the single crucial author to read to learn about the mysterious way that changes in time and circumstance throw a whole new light on a person's virtues or vices.

  14. What luck - he's a great writer to never be bored by. A lifetime of reading, right there in one author.

    Never is awfully strong, though. I have read a more or less boring book by Trollope, an abridgement of North America, but that's not fiction, so it counts differently. And even that book has it's more sparkly moments.

  15. We're in agreement that criticism can be an act of love and that failure to criticize can be an act of contempt, but I would argue that it certainly doesn't have to be.
    Moving the argument to food (the one area in which I consider myself a real appreciationist). In criticizes, comparing and generally discussing, the Mister and I are demonstrating our love and appreciation for good food.
    There are many people who eat at the same restaurants we do, always order the same things, come back and never compare contemplate or discuss.
    I don't think they are exhibiting contempt for the chef's art.
    I would guess anon. is much the same way with Trollope.

  16. Are we just robots, mastication machines, eating for fuel? Contemplate! Contemplate! Live!

    The behavior you describe is, at many restaurants, appropriate. At Charlie Trotter's, it's contempt.

  17. Contempt? Really?

    With food, and with most books, I personally delve into the contemplation, but there is so much art of so many different kinds. Are my choices really only contemplate and critique or exhibit contempt?
    I have always enjoyed orchestral concerts. I know very little about classical music. Knowledge, dicussion, and criticism would surely better show real appreciation, but is it really contemptible that I listen, enjoy, and devote no more thought to it?

  18. You're right, I should stop playing devil's advocate for a view I don't hold. That comment by A. Nonymous was truly irritating - the contempt was there, contempt for the act of criticism.

  19. Indeed, I should stop picking individual words ("archaic" "contempt") and pulling them away from the main discussion.
    Without any other evidence of this Anon (which you may have more of), however, I really didn't feel contempt for your work as a critic. Defensiveness, yes, but defensive of Anon's own uncritical fondness.

    On another note, I suppose I should credit the Scottish Reading Challenge as the impetus for the structuring of my current reading project.

  20. Try reading Trollope one chapter at a time with a fortnight in between chapters, as the readers at the time might have encountered it; makes his prolixity understandable. You can't expect your readers to keep a year old magazine open in front of them cross-referencing all the time. In fact that method makes even Dickens seem tolerable.

  21. Welcome, new commenter! First, see this post. I'm way ahead of you.

    Second, Barchester Towers was a three-volume novel, not a serial.